Lives of the fellows

Stephen Robert Ferguson Whittaker

b.26 December 1909 d.1 November 1979
CBE(1971) MRCS LRCP(1935) MA Cantab(1935) MB Bchir(1937) MRCP(1938) MD(1946) FRCP(1947)

Stephen Whittaker was born in Dublin. His father, Sir Edmund Whittaker FRS, was then Astronomer Royal of Ireland, and later professor of mathematics at the University of Edinburgh, whither the family moved in 1912. His mother, Mary, was the daughter of Thomas Boyd, a Presbyterian minister in Liverpool, and her grandfather had been Lord Provost of Edinburgh. Stephen was the fourth of five children. One of these, a mathematician like his father, was JM Whittaker FRS, vice-chancellor of Sheffield University 1953 — 1965, while the third boy, Edmund, became vice-president of the Prudential Insurance Company in USA. Stephen was educated at Edinburgh Academy, and having already determined upon medicine as his future career, he spent a year at Edinburgh University taking the first MB. Then he went to Trinity College, Cambridge, where he became a scholar and in due course gained a first in physiology in the Natural Sciences tripos; taking his clinical training at University College Hospital in 1932 and qualifying in 1935. For the next three years he was successively resident medical officer and resident assistant physician at his teaching hospital, and obtained the MRCP.

At the outbreak of war, Whittaker became a physician to the Emergency Medical Service, then joined the Army in 1940 as a medical specialist, spending the next five years in the RAMC in the Middle East and Italy, with an eventual rank of lieutenant colonel, commanding the medical division of the 48th General Hospital. His natural authority and sociability made army life congenial to him, and its hierarchical orientation towards a common purpose influenced him strongly in his later adherence to the National Health Service. On leaving the Army in 1945 he spent two years as senior registrar at the postgraduate school of medicine in Hammersmith, and was elected a fellow of this College in 1947, aged 38.

Unsuccessful in his bid for a physician post at University College Hospital, Whittaker decided to be of that band of talented crusaders who merged their personal ambitions with one of the goals of the new Health Service,that of creating centres of excellence away from those traditional in capital cities. Accordingly, after prospecting some provincial centres, he was appointed in February 1947 consulting physician to the Warwickshire County Council, at hospitals in Warwick, Stratford, Nuneaton, Rugby and Solihull. He was drawn to Warwick by Wilfrid Gaisford, who was vacating this post which he had inaugurated, turning himself to paediatrics. The two men were colleagues in Warwick until Gaisford’s assumption of a chair in paediatrics later in 1947. To start with, Stephen’s was a fragmented job, entailing a radial itinerary to all segments of a large county, with voluntary hospitals standing everywhere watchful on the limits of their territory like invaded robins, and the instant amalgamations of the Health Service did nothing to dissolve rivalries. Upon this disintegrated foundation Whittaker began at once to build. He had clear ideas of what he wished to achieve in a provincial medical centre. His priorities were to concentrate his hospitals and to attract to them a first class senior staff, to deflect influential local interests towards the welfare of the hospitals, and to establish a collegiate atmosphere within his own unit, bringing young people of high quality to work with him.

In realizing these aims, Whittaker was greatly aided by a local physician of shrewdness and foresight, Alexander Cheyne. Whittaker’s pre-eminence in the administrative fields was at once recognized and, after serving on the local hospital management committee, he was appointed to the Birmingham Regional Hospital Board in 1958, on which he served as chairman of the consultant services committee, and subsequently 1974-1978 on the West Midlands Regional Health Authority, with special responsibility for medical staffing. An outstanding man of affairs, his public advocacy marvellously combined intellectual force, mercurial repartee and singleness of aim. Other bodies on which he later served were the Pharmaceutical Whitley council, the Medical Whitley council, the Distinction Awards committee, and the Salmon committee on senior nursing staff structure. In 1968 he was elected a councillor of the Royal College of Physicians, and in the same year was appointed as a College examiner. He was also an examiner for the Cambridge MB. In 1971 he became a member of the council of the University of Warwick.

Warwick became a centre for postgraduate education in medicine soon after Whittaker’s arrival, and it was perhaps on this achievement that he most prided himself. He encouraged undergraduate attachments from teaching hospitals long before they became fashionable, and many of these people returned later to take local house posts at a time when a general shortage of juniors in hospital was embarrassing many provincial hospitals. The figure for successes in the MRCP since 1948 among his pupils is illustrative, being no fewer than eighty.

Though he lived alone and never married, Stephen Whittaker was hospitable and gregarious, and had a great gift for friendship; he was zealous to retain friendships that he had made at every stage of his career. He was a familiar and popular figure at the College and at the Association of Physicians. He was proud of the achievements of his colleagues, and of the later careers of those who had worked for him. At the time of his retirement most of these returned to Warwick to do him honour.

Whittaker sought and enjoyed authority and influence, and could be ruthless towards those he did not respect. He was pleased to become a deputy lieutenant of Warwickshire in 1962. He was realistic in self-evaluation and recognized not only his gifts of appraisal and advocacy, but also that he was not scientifically creative, though a clinician and teacher of the first rank. Shining intelligence irradiated his personality, which was spiced by his enjoyment of the small change of human relationships, and by a rather naughty sense of humour. He was a rapacious smoker, and the manipulation of a cigarette became a part of his charisma.

In 1962 he was awarded a CBE for services to medicine, and in 1975 he retired from clinical work. He had always relished his fine house and garden close to Warwick Castle. After retirement he began to suffer from his heart. He faced the likelihood of his death with clearsighted stoicism, and succeeded in living his last years to the full. His death in November 1979 was sudden, after a day filled with the sort of activities that he loved.

M MacGregor

[, 1979, 4, 1302; Lancet, 1979, 2, 1088; Times, 16 Nov 1979]

(Volume VII, page 595)

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